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State of Siege: The Radical Potential of Realism

Siege 1

By William Repass. 

In today’s economic and political climate, it can be tempting to dismiss film as merely spectacle: a flimsy replacement for or deflection from lived experience that nonetheless empowers and enriches the few at the expense of the many. Even accomplished films, if we step back and consider their function as commodities, revert to aesthetic objects, produced to stimulate a contemplative (which is to say, passive) spectatorship. Films of this kind may alter our way of seeing things but, by virtue of being images, they privilege seeing over other forms of engagement. Pure spectatorship places us in danger of confusing changes in the surface-level appearance of our lives with thoroughgoing change. In this way, images give form to ideology; that which we can’t (or don’t) see hemorrhages meaning. Photographic images, in particular, are as simple to manipulate as they are convincing in verisimilitude. Ideas that would collapse if subjected to articulation remain intact as vivid surfaces. Even the few radical prospects which remain visible at the margins of spectacle dim in its glare. At the root of this conundrum—from the standpoint of those contemplatively inclined—lies, perhaps, fear: fear that we lack the will or the resources to effect change at all; fear that taking action might lose us the privilege of contemplation; fear that by acting without sufficient theorization (a product contemplation), we’ll change the world but for the worse—even as inequality intensifies, requiring still further contemplation to address it. Meanwhile, the now of potential action retreats behind a haze of mirage.

Siege 2Nonetheless, there exist films that do incite us to action, in spite of, or even because of, the contemplative pleasures they offer. The achievement of such (deplorably rare) films hinges on a distancing that, paradoxically, ushers us closer to life—not merely as we live it, but as we could. Arguably, State of Siege (Costa-Gavras, 1972) stands as one such film. At least it looks the part, closely resembling Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966), which not only inspired revolutionaries but unsettled the establishment. As recently as 2003, the Pentagon screened Battle of Algiers in a cynical perversion of the film’s intent, conflating events portrayed in the film with the situation developing in Iraq. The idea was to show “how to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas.” Worded bluntly, the Pentagon aimed to prompt a cost-benefit analysis of torture as a means to counter-insurgency.[1] Apparently they ruled in favor of the “benefits,” so long as someone could cover up the costs. But the Battle of Algiers can also be seen as an instruction manual for urban guerrilla warfare, and State of Siege employs this same how-to mode—not surprising, given that both films share a scriptwriter. Anyone who’s seen Battle of Algiers will recognize Franco Solinas’ hand in State of Siege. Both fictionalize historical events (in the case of State of Siege, the kidnapping and execution of Daniel Mitrione by Uruguayan Tupamaro guerrillas). Both films adopt a realist aesthetic, making extensive use of news faux-documentary footage. Both deal with media responses to revolutionary action, and State reaction in the form of torture. Though more conventional in terms of film-language, State of Siege exudes the aura of a spiritual successor. It’s difficult to recommend as “thriller”, but it’s a testament to the radical potential of realism.

Shot two years following the events on which the film is based, State of Siege stars Yves Montand as Philip Michael Santore (modeled on Dan Mitrione, a CIA torture expert posing as a humanitarian). Costa-Gavras opens after Santore’s killing with the film’s most cinematic sequence: objective long shots depicting the titular state of siege, with soldiers and police willy-nilly conducting searches and arrests. A patrol stumbles on Santore’s body and straightaway a full-scale media cover-up lurches into gear. We watch as though from home in front of our television sets, as a reporter narrates the state-funded funeral service. An apostolic nuncio casts Santore in the role of Jesus, “saving” young citizens from poverty in his capacity as a USAID “technical adviser.” Ironically, Santore’s character does function as a kind of inverted Jesus-figure or anti-Christ, twice reborn—narratively, in the near identical form of his replacement, and formally, as Costa-Gavras works backwards in time, rupturing through the spectacular surface of media-coverage to unveil, in painstaking detail, the kidnapping and cross-interrogation of Santore. Even the interrogation has the feel of a revolutionary confessional—revolutionary because the Tupamaro aren’t extracting information, only urging Santore to publically acknowledge what they already know. Here, the contemplative faculty is redeemed, for Costa-Gavras shares in their impetus to unveil the political substrate. By exposing the inner mechanisms not only of the State, but more importantly, of Tupamaro operations, State of Siege refrains from propaganda or mere spectacle (propaganda in an anesthetized form). Though Costa-Gavras’ images displace reality, as images must, they simultaneously reflect and reflect upon it. Acting blurs with re-enactment. Verisimilitude cuts both ways.

Siege 4In terms of film qua film, State of Siege fails to live up to its predecessor, which built its unveiling tendency into camera-movement and montage, drawing attention even to the constructedness of its realism, whereas State of Siege relies too heavily on narrative form. But, like Battle of Algiers, Costa-Gavras’ effort demonstrates that truth as a vehicle for revolution cannot be extracted by torture, only laid bare, a sentiment reinforced by the last image of the film, which shows a pair of eyes in extreme close-up.

William Repass is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.

State of Siege was released on Blu-ray and DVD by The Criterion Collection.

[1]  Kaufman, Michael. “The World: Film Studies; What Does the Pentagon See in ‘Battle of Algiers’?” The New York Times. The New York Times, 6, Sept. 2003. Web. 21 July 2015.

2 Comments for State of Siege: The Radical Potential of Realism”

  1. Christopher Sharrett

    Thank you for this. State of Siege is among Costa-Gavras’s best work, and one of the greatest political films. Dan Mitrone is an important figure whose name is lost to history, I fear. His good friend, Manny Pena, another CIA operative, had a desk with the LAPD. He held the position at the time of the Robert Kennedy murder and played a key role in intimidating witnesses and destroying evidence.

  2. Fortunately, the days of Colin McCabe’s “classic realist text” Screen theory are now long gone and this article reveals how dated the Cahiers/Screen line became as opposed to the realist concept they attacked forty years ago.

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